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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Out Of The Ashes, Love Five Orphaned Russian Children Try To Adjust To Life With Their Aunt And Uncle

Carla K. Johnson Staff Writer

The worst time is bedtime.

For five Russian children whose parents and three siblings died April 7 in a Bellingham house fire, getting to sleep isn’t easy - even after bedtime stories, family prayers and small talk about their days at school.

Their uncle, Alexander Solodyankin, puts the boys to bed, while their aunt, Yelena, tucks in the girls.

“They keep and keep us because they’re afraid of something,” said Yelena Solodyankin.

She knows sleep problems are normal for grieving children. That doesn’t make it any easier.

Last week, Alexander and Yelena Solodyankin filed for legal guardianship of the children, who moved into their three-bedroom home on East Heroy after the funeral.

The couple has three children of their own: 9-year-old Oleg, 7-year-old Valentin, and little Alex, 3.

Their family suddenly ballooned with the addition of Olena, 12; Timofey, 11; Olesya, 9; Tatyana, 8; and Ivan, 4.

Others in the large extended family of Russianspeaking refugees also wanted the children. Some suggested splitting them up.

But at a family meeting, the uncles and aunts agreed to do what was right for the children, Yelena Solodyankin said. That is, keep them together.

“We gathered together and decided what was best. Another separation was not good for them,” she said.

The children’s parents - Alexander’s brother Vyacheslav and his wife, also named Yelena - had lived in Spokane less than a year. They fled Kyrgyzstan seeking religious freedom and wanting to join relatives here.

The Bellingham house fire happened during the children’s spring break from school. The couple and five of their children were visiting relatives.

The surviving children deal with the deaths differently, their aunt said.

Olena is now the oldest. Her older sister, 14-year-old Valeria, died in the fire.

Olena blamed herself for a while because her family had come to Bellingham to pick her up. The Solodyankins asked a Russian pastor to their home to reassure Olena she was not guilty.

Timofey locks his feelings inside. He cried for the first time this week after arguing with his sister. He broke away from her to sit in a corner, and the tears began.

“At first, he was calling, ‘Momma, momma.’ Then he started calling ‘Uncle Alex, come here,”’ Yelena Solodyankin said.

Four-year-old Ivan hid from everyone the first week, but now plays with the other children.

“I can’t say everything is just fine. It’s not just fine. We must work and work,” Yelena Solodyankin said.

Her own children are adjusting to their new places in the family. Her oldest child, Oleg, cried when he realized he was now fourth in line.

The children’s grandparents, Mariya and Anatoliy Solodyankin, come during the day to care for the two youngest children, tend a garden, do laundry and make dinner.

Still, Yelena Solodyankin wakes two hours earlier and falls into bed an hour later than before, just to get everything done,

The children “show me the way,” she said.

Twelve-year-old Olena suggested a schedule so everybody would know when it was his or her turn to clean a room or practice piano.

So Yelena Solodyankin made a schedule. She showed it to co-worker Judy Macfarlane, who pointed out she forgot to block in a time for dinner. They laughed about that.

Macfarlane, a school nurse, has become Yelena Solodyankin’s unofficial detail manager.

She lined up a large dining room table from a Spokane furniture store so the family of 10 can eat together instead of in two shifts.

Rotary and Lions clubs plan to donate a larger refrigerator, washer and dryer.

“When the story disappears from the news, people start to forget. I share an office with Yelena and she doesn’t go away,” Macfarlane said.

The Solodyankins, who arrived in Spokane almost four years ago, both work. He builds houses for a Spokane construction company. She works with Russian-speaking children at Audubon Elementary School.

They provide their own children with music lessons and bought a piano for them six months ago.

They recently enrolled four of the new children in music lessons. Olena and Olesya study piano. Timofey is learning guitar, Tatyana the flute.

Their father wanted this for them, Yelena Solodyankin said. He talked about being able to afford music lessons someday, when he had been in the United States long enough to learn English and go to work.

To help pay for their music lessons, Holy Names Music Center, 3910 W. Custer, will hold two benefit recitals Friday at 6 and 7:50 p.m.

Yelena Solodyankin recently asked her niece, Olena, if she “would mind doing the dishes.” The niece disliked the tentative way she asked.

She wanted her aunt to direct her the way her mother would have, more like, “Please do the dishes.”

“She said, ‘Be like my mom,”’ Yelena Solodyankin said. “I told her I would.”

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